You can’t avoid it these days: Everywhere you go, it seems, someone is pointing an infrared thermometer at your forehead. If your kids are back in school in-person, you’re probably being asked to take their temperatures at home every morning. So what’s the deal? Are temperature checks actually doing anything to stop the spread of Covid-19?
The short answer: not really. Temperature checks to detect people who might be harboring Covid-19 emerged early on in the pandemic, back when we didn’t know a lot about the virus and were throwing everything at the wall to see what might stick. (Remember, many of us were also wiping down our groceries with Clorox.) And it is true that fever is one common symptom of Covid-19.
The problem is, as Dr. James Hamblin explains in The Atlantic, many people who do have Covid-19 do not have elevated temperatures, and many people who do not have Covid-19 do have elevated temperatures, for a whole host of reasons. This makes temperature checks neither “sensitive” (meaning they identify nearly everyone with a given illness) nor “specific” (meaning they avoid misidentifying people who do not have a given illness).
This is important information for families whose children are heading back to in-person school, because children are particularly unlikely to have a fever as one of their Covid-19 symptoms, if they’re symptomatic at all. Bottom line: a fever is concerning, but the absence of a fever doesn’t mean you’re Covid-free.
So should you toss your thermometers? Of course not. Temperature is an important piece of data to collect on a person who isn’t feeling well. But don’t let 98.6 degrees fool you: If you or your child isn’t feeling well, stay home, even if the thermometer tells you you’re good to go.
“Bottom line: a fever is concerning, but the absence of a fever doesn’t mean you’re Covid-free.”
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